October 24, 2017

Let's Talk Illustrators #46: Julie Kim

In my mind Julie Kim's debut book Where's Halmoni? represents the most perfect picture book-graphic novel hybrid I've ever seen. Julie is careful to build a well-rounded world in which the story is accessible, the dialogue is easy to follow, and there's plenty to look at in every single panel. What more could you want? As far as introductory graphic novels go, this one has been on my Best Grade School Graphic Novels list for a couple of months now because of its inherent ability to guide young readers through the process of learning to read panels and understand visual narratives. Truly a gem of a book that defies categorization, and I urge you to seek it out immediately if you haven't had the  pleasure of experiencing it. For now, though, I'll let our conversation do the talking. Enjoy! 

About the book:
Two young children pay a visit to Halmoni (grandmother in Korean), only to discover she's not home. As they search for her, noticing animal tracks covering the floor, they discover a window, slightly ajar, new to their grandmother's home. Their curiosity gets the best of them, and they crawl through and discover an unfamiliar fantastical world, and their adventure begins. As they continue to search for their grandmother and solve the mystery of the tracks, they go deeper into a world of Korean folklore, meeting a number of characters who speak in Korean along the way, and learn more about their cultural heritage.

Let's talk Julie Kim!

LTPB: What inspired the visuals we see in Where's Halmoni? What was your research like and how did your illustrations evolve as you learned more? 

JK: From the very beginning, I knew that, visually, it was going to be inspired by the traditional Korean folk art. But the question was, by how much?

Due to my love of folktales, I count among my illustration heroes Edmond Dulac and Arthur Rackham. I loved Edmond Dulac’s use of color and shapes, and I loved the painterliness of Arthur Rackham’s ink lines. This was the art educational background that I was coming from, and it showed in my earlier work.

I also loved the aesthetics of the East. I appreciated the beautiful delicacy of traditional Chinese paintings as well as the bold beauty of Japanese sumi-e ink paintings. But most of all, I loved the sheer joy and colorfulness of the Korean folk art. Unlike the traditional Chinese style emulated by educated artists of that time, the lines and shapes are free to be wonky, the colors more instinctual, and designs more whimsical. There’s something wonderfully genuine about it.

Below are some examples of Korean folk art.


I inhabited these two different visual styles and, depending on what type of illustrations I was working on, one or both would show up. So when I began working on the concept art for Where’s Halmoni?, I knew it would be some combination of both, but I didn’t know what it was going to look like. Only way to know was to jump right in.

I copied some traditional landscapes, drew lots of trees, rocks and mountains to figure I out how I was going to interpret them in my own fashion. Below are some initial studies that I did with sumi-e watercolors.

Then I went into character designs. The Tiger, the Rabbit and the Nine-tailed Fox came to me very naturally and have stayed mostly true to their original designs. I found the goblins a bit harder to design because traditionally, Korean goblins look like burly middle-aged men. They aren’t often depicted in Korean folk art, and the images available are often a take from the Japanese Oni, who are more ferocious and malevolent than the Korean Dokkebi (goblin). In the end, I decided to just invent my own version of them, drawing heavily from the Korean traditional folk masks and anything that felt to me like goblins.

Once I got them nailed down, they didn’t change much as I worked on the book. Here are some mid-stage prototypes. Of all the characters, Jin and Joon changed the most. I’ve drawn people all my life but for some reason, Jin and Joon weren’t as intuitive. Ultimately, I think I had to decide how realistic or comical they were going to look. Because I was painting them throughout the entire 96 pages, I could see how they were changing and shifting. At a certain point, I had to go back and ‘average’ out the height, proportions and basic features so they felt consistent throughout. Below are some early and later prototypes of Jin and Joon.

You can see how my early concept of the book was still trying to balance out realistic depictions against the more stylized depictions of this strange world. In the end, I think they all merged together into something else.

LTPB: Coming from a background of comics, how did you approach the idea of a picture book? How did you consciously work to balance comic elements (multiple panels per page, dialogue bubbles, etc.) while making this feel like a book accessible to young children still learning how to read pictures? 

JK: I was exposed to comic books before even picture books. It wasn’t until our family moved to the U.S. that the world of picture books opened up for me through the school library. Used to the simple black and white illustrations of comics, I found the full color richness of picture books magical. However, the comic book had the power to convey rich emotional nuances and details through its many panels, regardless of color and rendering. Even with stick figure drawings, comics conveyed story and information very effectively. So for this book, I was loathe to give up either, and I ended up combining both formats. And I think I always wanted to do a painterly full color comic book.

Besides, I had a long story (for a picture book) with lots of little situations that I wanted to show, so there was no way a regular picture book format was going to work for me. And I wanted pictures to tell most of the story, with words limited to dialogues. It was very natural for this storybook to take on a comic/graphic novel format that leaned heavily towards pictures. I think this made it accessible to the younger readers and not very far from regular picture books.

I love colors, and I think it shows. In the book, you will find lavish landscape paintings as well as comic panels, all done in watercolor. I love the way light works with the layers of watercolor pigment on paper. I can shut off or turn on visual light by the weight of the pigment through its opacity. A heavy white pigment will reflect light differently compared to the regular white of the paper, and create different affects. I am speaking of luminosity, but what about the color itself? Color has emotional temperature and a language of its own, a powerful visual tool.

And in order to incorporate the text into the paintings more seamlessly, I had to hand letter or paint all the text and speech bubbles. Basically, the text became part of the art work. I also had to be careful about not overcrowding the page. I had to make sure everything was well-paced and to properly build the many emotional crescendos in the story.

Use of speech bubbles in picture books is very common now, and I see lot hybrids in the market which I think is totally natural. Personally, I’ve always considered picture books to be beautiful haikus of comic book/graphic novel formats.

LTPB: What tools did you use to create this book?

JK: I used various watercolor papers, traditional and sumi-e watercolors, the humble pencil and Photoshop. Normally, I paint the whole thing in a single painting since it’s always nice to have something finished on paper at the end. Unfortunately for this project, it was too vast (96 pages) and time too short (9 months) for me to risk messing up a painting or three. (I still had countless rejects.) Some images I could paint whole but complex landscape paintings, I had to collage together. There were too many moving parts and my visual sense of this place was still developing. I really honestly didn’t know what everything was going to look like when I started this book. So I would paint individual mountains, trees, figures, and ground separately and reconstruct it about twenty or more times in Photoshop before getting it right.

This is the initial watercolor painting of the children before clean up.

This is watercolor painting of the trees after the clean up and additional digital line work. 

LTPB: Can you tell us what you're working on now?

JK: Ah, sorry. I am still trying to tease out the next children’s book project out of my brain. It’s very laborious.

LTPB: Which illustrator would I choose to do my picture book biography?

JK: Since I can dream, it would be really cool if Beatrice Alemagna did my biography. A close friend of mine introduced her work to me a long time ago. I responded at gut level when I first saw her work, the same way I responded to Korean folk art. There is something very raw and moving about her art and it would be amazing to see how she’d interpret my life and art — even if our art styles are very different.

A million thanks to Julie for taking time to answers some questions! Where's Halmoni? published from Little Bigfoot earlier this month!

Special thanks to Julie for use of these images!

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